I remember sitting in an undergrad classroom and listening to a lecture about the educational philosophy of students being referred to as “blank slates”. Twenty years of educational experience later and that outdated comparison still has yet to change for some.
It should be educational common sense that not all students learn the same. But why? Every student walks into a classroom with individual experiences and environments that create the young mind educators are charged to work with. That could be growing up in a household not prepared to focus on the importance or value of education, for example. Students bring their own priorities and concerns with them everyday. It is unrealistic to assume they can put those thoughts aside.
Most educators want to know how to address the whole student and create safe environments in which instructional objectives can be met. In other words, how do I teach my black and brown students, my male students, my students who identify as LGBT, etc to take ownership of their education and get the most out of it?
The first step is to acknowledge this characteristic of implicit biases and agree that they should never create the disportionate representation that we too often see in categorized groups such as special education or gifted and talented classes. It’s an embarrassing truth in our schools.
The second step is to call on someone like Christina Spears. Christina was recently hired to work in Wake County Public School System’s Equity Office in order to answer this very question. A graduate of Meredith College, Spears was initially a classroom teacher for special education students while serving as co-chair of her school’s equity team and was a proud step team coach. She is now an integral member of Wake Ed Partnership’s Beginning Teacher Leadership Network, Wake Education Policy Advisory Council, and an active member of NCAE where she serves as the Social Justice chair for Wake NCAE. In this new role as Special Assistant, Christina hopes to build district-wide support systems for teachers focused on instructional practices that disrupt inequities and transform school systems.
What experiences brought Spears to this specific position? Her upbringing. She grew up in the mountains of West Jefferson, and hers was one of the few non-white families in the town. Her grandfather was pastor of the only black church. After finishing college and spending a few years in the classroom she started to find herself in similar situations as her childhood and questions started to formulate.
“I’d be in a educational setting and I wanted to know where all the Black and Hispanic kids were. Why were there more minority students in special education classes and not the advanced academic classes? Even as a student I knew this wasn’t right.”
She was told to not ask those obvious questions and worry about her own students. After witnessing a negative racist incident at her school, the question now became what are we not doing in our practice? Christina wanted to know how teachers could address these issues and be proactive in the classroom.
A position of special assistant in the Wake County Equity Office posted and she didn’t want to regret missing the opportunity to answer the questions even though it meant leaving her students. In the 6 months she’s been there, Christina has seen immediate change. Trainings in various schools and with various departments within the district have provided opportunities to assist educators in becoming more culturally responsive from using technology to driving a bus. She even addresses those who don’t see anything wrong with the way things are. She refers to data and student experiences.
“Just listen to the students talk about how they’ve been mistreated based on ethnicity or personal preferences. You can’t argue that perspective.”
Spears is exactly what North Carolina’s classrooms and the entire country need if we want the world to become the nation it can be. We must teach our students to speak up for themselves and each other and teachers and administrators must respond appropriately if not prevent such occurrences.
“Once we give students and educators the language and foundational knowledge of what’s happening real change will happen.”
She feels her accomplishments will be obvious in Wake County Public Schools when there is a specific structures that put a spotlight on equity without her office’s guidance. Building leadership capacity and other equity leaders already in schools is a must. Equity for minority students, LGBT students, etc will no longer have predictors of success. Students will be able to drive their own futures and how they look and the personal choices they make won’t matter.
Thank you Christina for teaching all of us how to courageously ask the questions and then be part of the proactive solution.